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Two Years Ago Today (More Or Less)

Life is funny, it rolls along day to day, one task followed by another until you sort of lose track of time passing. Particularly as a freelancer, I’m always finishing one project and starting another and there’s very little that actually cements itself as belonging to a specific time and place. And since I’m lucky enough to have built good relationships with reliable clients who, in turn, have a fairly reliable string of assignments, it’s very easy for one month or one season or even one year to pass without anything that really feeling like a strong point of reference, and to lose any real sense of perspective of WHEN one project in particular happened, or how much time has passed since then.

But every once in awhile you come across an artifact—a photo or a piece of paperwork or, in this case, and video—that acts as a strong temporal reference point not only for itself, but for the river of things that happened between then and now. The video in question was a brief interview shot at a Gamerati Game Day in early February 2014—two full years ago.

 

TWO YEARS AGO?!?

Suddenly I feel the weight of that temporal hardpoint and the force of the time that’s rushed by since. It’s interesting (and in some cases amusing) to consider all the things that have changed since . . . as well as the ones that haven’t.

When that video was shot, I’d just begun working with Monte Cook Games, helping them with an overload of project management and art direction tasks. It was about a six-month gig that doesn’t feel more than 10 or 12 months ago to me, though now I have PROOF that twice that much time has passed. I’m still doing mostly freelance work, still working mostly out of my home, and still hoping to get a greater proportion of my assignments to be cartooning based.

Then there’s the fact that my wardrobe is almost embarrassingly unchanged in that time. Just last weekend I wore pretty much the exact same outfit as I have on in that video (probably a different orange t-shirt . . . but not necessarily).

I’ll be attending another Gamerati Game Day in a few weeks (on March 5th on the campus of Pacific Lutheran University . . . you should totally come). If Anastazia (or someone else) is there doing interviews, a lot of my answers will be strikingly similar . . . I just have to be sure to wear a different shirt!

JAPANESE TV ADS: Cows In Space!

Wow . . . those ads during the Super Bowl were pretty underwhelming, weren’t they? Thank goodness it’s time for another batch of inexplicable commercials from Japanese TV!

This time we’ve got the return of Tommy Lee Jones giving us another zen moment sponsored by Boss canned coffee, a glimpse at happy orbital farm life in the year 2200, and chocolate french fries from McDonalds. Plus an actual TV ad for a comic book (oh, if only U.S. comics sold well enough to warrant such treatment)!

SUMO: Updates & Exhibition Tournament

I thought I wasn’t going to have any sumo news to talk about until the banzuke [ranking sheet] for March’s Haru Basho [Spring Tournament] was released at the end of February, but in fact a few interesting items have hit my in-box so I thought I’d share.

KOTOSHOGIKU’S MANY REASONS TO CELEBRATE
You’d think that after winning his first yusho [tournament championship] and being the first Japanese-born wrestler since 2006 to do so, life couldn’t get much better for ozeki Kotoshogiku. But just one week after his victory, he had a double celebration that had nothing to do with his performance at the Hatsu Basho. Because January 30th was both Kotoshogiku’s thirty-second birthday AND his wedding day!

Whenever a major sumo star gets married, it’s a big deal . . . so Kotoshogiku doing it so close to such a historic victory only magnified the effect. The affair was attended by stars of Japanese stage, screen, and sumo and got pretty wide coverage on the news (including the news/chat program linked below).

They often say that following a first yusho win or a big promotion a rikishi will have trouble concentrating on his training because of all the celebrations and does poorly in the next basho. If this is at all true, Kotoshogiku may look mighty hungover when he steps on the dohyo in Osaka. On the other hand, perhaps by lumping so many events together he’ll get ALL of his partying out of the way in one big burst and come back with a full head of steam.

TERUNOFUJI INJURY UPDATE
According to reports from his stable master, ozeki Terunofuji is recovering quicker than expected from knee surgery, and his fractured clavicle is also healing ahead of schedule. Only three weeks after dropping out of the Hatsu Basho he has his doctor’s permission to begin strength training. Next week he will begin doing shiko [sumo-style stomping], and will be ready for full match style training about the same time as the banzuke is released.

“I was told by my doctor that I’m recovering too quickly,” Terunofuji recently told reporters. But he also admitted that his physical ailments the past two basho will have an effect on his sumo. “I’ve got to change the way I’ve been doing things until now. The most important thing is to avoid injuries.”

HOMASHO’S DANPATSUSHIKI [RETIREMENT CEREMONY]
Former komusubi Homasho pretty much hung up his mawashi [sumo loincloth] about the same time I started getting back into watching sumo, and by that time his injuries had caused him to drop all the way down to the Makushita division [the equivalent of AA minors], so I never got to see him fight. However, a rikishi isn’t officially retires until he has a danpatsushiki [retirement ceremony], and the higher the rank you’ve held during your career, the bigger the surrounding hooplah is.

The most dramatic part of the danpatsushiki is when the rikishi sits while various coaches, stablemates, competitors, and supporters come up and snip-by-snip cup off his chonmage [topknot]. The final cut is generally reserved for his stable master (who in this case was my all-time favorite rikishi Terao, now Shikoroyama Oyakata). There are lots of great photos here.

40th ANNUAL NIHON OZUMO ONE-DAY TOURNAMENT
The only matches that count on a rikishi’s ranking are their wins and losses in the six hon-basho [Grand Tournaments]—one in every odd-numbered month—but that’s just the beginning of a rikishi’s schecule. They train all year ’round, and have two or three jungyo [exhibition tours] where they go to different prefectures in Japan and put on a weeks-long series of one-day exhibitions for regional fans. And a few times a year there are prestigious one-day exhibition tournaments, such as this past weekend’s 40th Annual Nihon Ozumo tournament.

These are run more like tournaments that we in the West are used to—they are single-elimination events where the rikishi keep advancing as long as they keep winning. The prize for winning this particular event is ¥2.5 million (about $250k), so they get some pretty spirited competition. In the end the finals came down to a yokozuna vs. yokozuna match up (as it probably should be) as Harumafuji and Hakuho went head to head with Hakuho winning the tournament for the fourth time.

You can see photos from several of his matches here. And below is an amateur video (shot from some very nice seats) that strings together Hakuho’s final four matches.

MANGA: Ultraman vol. 3

It was just another pretty humdrum day here in the Stan!plex. I’d spent most of the afternoon doing paperwork and bookkeeping . . . but things got a lot more exciting when the FedEx guy arrived with a package. Sure, ANY package would have been a nice break, but this wasn’t just any package. This package contained my contributor’s copy of volume 3 of the Ultraman manga from my editor at Viz Media.

As it turns out, just earlier this week I finished my work on an upcoming volume of Ultraman, so it’s kind of serendipitous that I I’m also getting the joy of seeing my earlier work in print this week, too. (Volume 3 will hit store shelves on February 16, so pretty soon YOU can see my work too, if you like.)

It’s moments like this that I sometimes (though not often enough) take a few moments to realize how lucky I’ve been to get to contribute in some small way to so many different settings, characters, games, and even movies that have real meaning in my life . . . heck, some of which I’ve been a fan of for as long as I can remember being a fan of ANYTHING.

It truly is a blessing to be able to work on something I love, and know that what I’m doing will be (hopefully) enjoyed by other people who love it as much or more than I do.

COMICS: Three Titles I’m Dumping

Over the past month or two I’ve been talking about some of the titles that Marvel Comics have been relaunching in the wake of their most recent iteration of “Secret Wars.” Several of these have turned out to be quite good and earned a spot on my monthly pull list, but today I want to talk about three titles that I’m officially giving up on.

HERCULES
In this re-envisioning of Marvel’s version of the Greek demi-god, Hercules has squandered the fame and popularity that being a member of the Avengers gave him. He has become something of a joke, but a dangerous one—a “hero” that you hope will NOT show up even when giant monsters are attacking. For his part, Herc has realized the error of his ways and is trying to get back in the public’s good graces and regain his status as a hero. Oh, and there is a looming apocalypse that threatens to destroy all of the people and creatures of ancient myth as the process of birthing some new pantheon and mythology.

In itself, that concept is pretty good—a fallen hero, trying to reclaim his stature. And the bombastic, of all the blowhards in the Marvel Universe, Hercules is the one most appropriate to use in such a storyline. However, the mixture of reinvented mythological figure, reinvented super hero, and reinvented fictional world does not blend easily, and all three parts are important in this series. I never quite know when I’m supposed to be able to use my back-issue knowledge and when I’m supposed to be patient and wait for a slow reveal.

Perhaps the biggest problem for me is that this comic feels like it skipped over a really interesting story—The Fall of Hercules. We just get him here, after the fall, after the wallowing, and after deciding to seek redemption. He’s changed a lot, but we don’t get to see the change, we simply must accept that he’s different and that path to this difference was a worthy one.

Now, I will say that the comics have been fun, with big fight scenes of Hercules beating up on titanic monsters from mythology. But the art, while good, doesn’t particularly speak to me . . . and I don’t care enough about this version of Hercules to CARE about his problems. I know him as the heroic (if self-important) character he used to be, and that he obviously is going to be again. I have no emotional attachment to his reclamation because I didn’t get to watch his ruination.

If I had to bet, I’d say that this story will probably be something I’ll thoroughly enjoy once I’m able to read a dozen issues in a trade paperback  edition, but it’s just not working for me as a monthly comic. So I’m through.

DEVIL DINOSAUR AND MOON GIRL
I expressed some reservations when I last talked about this comic . . . and it hasn’t improved a bit since then. The super-smart 10-year-old girl from the projects teaming up with the carnivorous dinosaur that has been time-displaced into modern Manhattan so they can fight likewise time-displaced proto-humans who are somehow learning modern ways and thriving as street thugs . . . well . . . it’s not as much fun as it sounds. (Or, if you’re like me, it’s exactly as much fun as it sounds, that’s just a very small amount.)

The art has ranged from average to unimpressive, but the real problem is the story. I don’t care about what’s happening, and I don’t see any hope that something I do care about is going to happen anytime soon. This is a shame because I started reading the book with great hope that it would be charming and adventurous, like the original Jack Kirby series. Instead, it’s just been cloying and annoying.

If someone tells me in six months that once the first storyline got resolved the book found its feet, I’ll probably come running back. I WANT this title to do well. But I’m not willing to be an enabler and keep buying issue after mediocre issue waiting for it to improve.

WEIRDWORLD
As a super hero setting with innumerable alternate timelines, parallel Earths, pocket dimensions, and alien civilizations, the Marvel Universe NEEDS a concept like the current iteration of Weirdworld. It’s the place where concepts, settings, and characters go when they can’t support a comic title or a slice of backstory on their own. It’s the place where Marvel the company can put all their IPs (intellectual properties) so that they can be trotted out anytime a writer (or lawyer) wants them to without having to do continuity backflips to explain it. Anything weird—EVERYTHING weird—just lives in Weirdworld somewhere.

Back when I wrote about the Weirdworld mini-series last fall, I noted that what I REALLY wanted was a return of the high fantasy, elves, dwarves, monsters, and magic version of Weirdworld that was published in the 1980s. And that’s still true  . . . I DO want that A LOT more than I want the current iteration. But I also understand why I’m not getting it, and I won’t let my desire for one thing spoil my appreciation of a different thing that has usurped the title.

That having been said, this new Weirdworld is a mess. They’ve continued with the fully painted art that, while beautiful, is TERRIBLE at serving the main function of being comprehensible sequential art. Basically, the art doesn’t tell the story . . . it’s just little snapshots of what the writer says is going on. With alarming frequency, important parts of the story have to be told in exposition because the painterly comic panels couldn’t get the information across visually. I suffered through it for the mini-series, but I have no interest in continuing this experiment any longer.

What’s more, the story seems again to be about someone who is lost with no real idea what she needs, let alone where to find it. Frankly, it’s kind of depressing. So after years of literally saying, “Boy, I WISH they’d bring back Weirdworld,” I’m turning my back on this title and rephrasing my request.

Boy, I WISH they’d bring back the Tyndall’s Quest storyline!

SUMO: Hatsu Basho Wrap-Up

Well, that was quite a fortnight! The 2016 Hatsu Basho was definitely a memorable one as well as being a historic one. If this is an omen of how the year is going to go, we’re in for a lot of very exciting sumo! Before putting thoughts of the dohyo away until March, I have a few thoughts left to share.

THE END OF THE CURSE
The biggest news coming out of the Hatsu Basho is that after ten years of gaijin [foreign-born] rikishi entirely dominating sumo, Kotoshogiku—a Japanese-born rikishi—has won a tournament again. And he did it in exactly the way one would hope—with strong but clean sumo, and calm and humble style. To drive this point home, here is his post-tournament interview.

Sumo had already recently been undergoing a resurgence in popularity in Japan, but I can only imagine this tournament’s result will only strengthen that trend. Of course, the question on everybody’s lips is can Kotoshogiku do it again? He is, after all 31-years old now, and will have a birthday in just a few days. He’s had a long career that has included a fair number of injuries.

The thing from my perspective is, this win was not about Kotoshogiku making a physical breakthrough, it was about a mental one. Whereas in past basho he has never been able to muster the concentration and inner determination to do his best sumo every day, this basho he did with only one exception. If this is the result of a real change in perspective, he should be able to replicate it in upcoming tournament. But if he just happened to be “in the zone” this month, then he’ll go back to his old, unpredictable ways and we’ll probably know it before the end of Week 1 at the Haru Basho.

I think more importantly, though, Kotoshogiku’s win provides a mental boost to all the OTHER top-notch Japanese rikishi. After a decade of being so thoroughly dominated by the Mongolian rikishi, who could blame the Japanese rikishi—particularly the younger ones who may not even REMEMBER having seen a Japanese sumotori hoist the Emperor’s Cup—for carrying around a deep-seated inferiority complex? If nothing else, Kotoshogiku has shown rikishi like Ikioi, Kotoyuki, Endo, and Mitakeumi that they CAN win.

SPECIAL PRIZES
At the end of each hon-basho [Grand Sumo Tournament] the Nihon Sumo Kyokai [Japan Sumo Association] has three sansho [special prizes] that they can award to rikishi who didn’t win the yusho [tournament championship] but excelled in some way. They don’t always give out all of the prizes, and may declare that more than one rikishi be awarded a particular prize.

The Shukun-sho [Outstanding Performance Prize]  for the 2016 Hatsu Basho was awarded to M7 Toyonoshima, who finished with a 12–3 record tied for 2nd place in the tournament. He also was the only rikishi to defeat Kotoshogiku. This is the third time that Toyonoshima has won this prize.

The Kanto-Sho [Fighting Spirit Prize] was awarded to M12 Shodai, who finished with 10–5 record in his very first basho in the Makuuchi Division. Many rikishi have a tough time their first couple of tournaments in the top division, so to come in at a slightly elevated rank of M12 and STILL get double-digit wins is extra impressive. Shodai has made himself a rikishi to watch in March’s Haru Basho.

The Gino-sho [Technique Prize] was not given out this basho. It is generally awarded to a rikishi that has used a broad array of kimarite [winning techniques] to amass a kachikoshi [majority of wins], and no rikishi’s performance really fit that description. (This is the special prize that most often goes unawarded.)

INJURY STATUS
There are a lot of big questions left unanswered as the rikishi return to their training regimen for the next two months, and many of them have to do with the health of various top level fighters. Ozeki Terunofuji has had surgery on his knee and is hoping that his broken collarbone will heal quickly. Yokozuna Hakuho clearly has an ongoing problem with his left arm (which seemed to get weaker toward the end of the tournament) and yokozuna Harumafuji is also still showing signs of arm pain at the end of most of his matches. Other popular wrestlers either withdrew from the tournament or were visibly bothered by injuries too, including: Tochinoshin, Osunaarashi, Endo, and Ikioi.

Sumo is a physically wearing sport, and traditionally focuses on a “tough it out, work through the pain” style of injury recovery. That’s one thing I really wish they could change, because the upcoming basho will be much less interesting if these rikishi don’t get themselves healthy.

MY SPECIAL THANKS
Before I wrap up my sumo posts for the next 6-or-so weeks, I think it’s important to give another public thank you to the YouTubers whose channels allow me to stay involved as an active sumo fan, and to share that fun with you who care enough to read these long and meandering posts.

Kintamayama prepares the daily overview videos that I link to in my posts, making all of the Makuuchi results available worldwide usually within an hour or two of the completion of each day’s matches (plus the Canadian rikishi match videos). I don’t know how he does it, but I’d be lost without him.

Jason Harris (or Taisha Jason, or My Argonauts) uses his iPad to record several matches per day in hi-def as he’s watching them on TV, and provides both his own knowledgeable commentary and the ability to listen to some of what the NHK’s English-language commentators have to say. Jason’s videos show more of the rituals and emotion surrounding the matches, and give a much richer perspective on what’s going on in the matches and in the broader sumo world.

Both Kintamayama and Jason have PayPal tip jars, and I encourage anyone who has been enjoying my sumo coverage to express your appreciation by tossing a few bucks their way.

TILL WE MEET AGAIN
Well, that’s it for now. While I’m certainly going to continue to think and read about sumo, and probably watch videos as I find them on YouTube, I probably won’t be posting much about it until it gets pretty close to time for things to kick off in Osaka. The banzuke [ranking sheet] for the Haru Basho will be announced on February 29, and the tournament itself will begin on March 13th. I’ve already got both those dates on my calendar!

SUMO: Hatsu Basho 2016 Senshuraku [Final Day] (Day 15)

Here it is . . . senshuraku [the final day] . . . Day 15 of the 2016 Hatsu Basho. It’s been a really wide open tournament with lots of drama, and things aren’t decided yet! We start the final day with ozeki Kotoshogiku alone atop the leaderboard, meaning that if he wins his match today, he’ll take the yusho [tournament championship] and become the first Japanese rikishi in ten years to hoist the Emperor’s Cup! (I wrote a little post giving a bit of the history behind the ten-year curse.)

If Kotoshogiku loses, though, a few things could happen. There are two rikishi trailing him by a single loss—yokozuna Hakuho and M7 Toyonoshima. If either of them wins today and Kotoshogiku loses, at the end of today’s scheduled matches there will immediately be a playoff. If it is a two-person playoff, it will be a single winner-take-all bout. If it is a three-person playoff, the rikishi will face one another in succession until one of them manages to win two matches in a row. (It gets even more complicated if there is a four-or-more person playoff . . . but I’ve never actually SEEN one of those, myself, so I can’t really give details on how that would work.)

There are also currently six rikishi with 7–7 records whose performance today will decide whether they get promotions or demotions for the Haru Basho, which will be held in Osaka in March. And nearly everyone else is pushing to add one more win to his record to either boost his promotion or lessen his demotion, however slightly.

In other words, it’s a good day for sumo!

The make-or-break matches featuring 7–7 rikishi (and their timestamps on the video) are:

• M12 Shodai (9–5) vs. M9 Gagamaru (7–7) (0:30)
• M8 Myogiryu (7–7) vs. M15 Homarefuji (4–10) (1:30)
• M6 Tokushoryu (3–10) vs. Amuru (7–7) (2:40)

• M15 Kitataiki (7–7) vs. M5 Sokokurai (7–7)—The only match this time where the Kyokai [Sumo Association] is pitting 7–7 rikishi against each other. In some basho they are crueler and do that a lot. If Kitataiki wins, he’ll get to stay in the Makuuchi Division in March’s Haru Basho, if not it’s down to the Juryo Division for him. If Sokokurai wins he’ll be rewarded by being moved up the banzuke [ranking sheet] to a point where he’ll probably have to face most of the sanyaku rikishi next basho, meaning he’ll really have to up his game if he doesn’t want to go crashing back down to the mid-maegashira ranks again. (3:00)

• Komusubi Tochinoshin (6–8) vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze (7–7)—Yoshikaze was the most successful rikishi in the second half of 2015 and his reward was a promotion to sekiwake. But sumo being the way it is, if he can’t get this eighth win, he’ll slide back down to komusubi again (or possibly lower . . . but probably not). In the meanwhile, Tochinoshin is definitely going to be demoted out of sanyaku, but a win here might ensure that he only goes to a M1 ranking. (6:40)

• Sekiwake Tochiozan (6–8) vs. M7 Toyonoshima (12–2)—Toyonoshima is only one win below the leader Kotoshogiku, so a win here would keep him in line for a potential championship playoff. On the other hand, Tochiozan is makekoshi and almost certainly going to be demoted from sekiwake, but a win here leaves open the possibility that he could hold onto that rank or, at the very least, will slip no lower than komusubi. In other words, there’s A LOT on the line with this match! (7:05)

• Ozeki Kotoshogiku (13–1) vs. ozeki Goeido (4–10)—This is the big match. Goeido is already makekoshi, guaranteed to be kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] in the Haru Basho, and suffering the embarrassment of having lost eight matches in a row—he has literally nothing left to lose. Kotoshogiku, meanwhile, has EVERYTHING on the line. If he can win this match, he will take the yusho [tournament championship] and be the hero of all Japan. You can watch this at 7:40 on the video below OR you can watch the full pomp and circumstance version that Jason Harris has posted on his YouTube channel that begins with the sanyaku sori-buri [a special ritual that is held just prior to the final three matches of the tournament’s final day].

• Yokozuna Kakuryu (10–4) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (8–6)—This has no yusho implications, but it is a terrific match between two of the best rikishi around, neither of whom had a great tournament this time around . . . but show their mettle here with nothing but pride on the line. (10:50)

• Yokozuna Harumafuji (11–3) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (12–2)—If ozeki Kotoshogiku won his earlier match, this one will be only for pride. But if Kotoshogiku lost then Hakuho will need to win this match in order to force a playoff for the yusho. Either way, this is final match of the tournament for a reason—it pits the two best rikishi in the sport head-to-head. (11:45)

SUMO: Bonus—Canadian Rikishi, Final Bout

As we saw a couple of days ago, the young Canadian rikishi Homarenishiki will be makekoshi [majority of losses] in his 7-match basho in the Sandanme Division (roughly the equivalent of half-season AA baseball). He looked strong but still uncertain around the dohyo and was having trouble with rikishi whom he dominated physically but who had much better “ring sense” than he did.

This is Homarenishiki’s final bout of the Hatsu Basho, and it will help determine how far down the banzuke he slides for March’s Haru Basho in Osaka.

We’ve seen Homarenishiki getting better and better in each outing, and he looked pretty good here. He’ll be fighting against rikishi of more or less this same level next time, so we can hope that he’ll pick up a few tricks between now and then and really dominate in March!

SUMO: Bonus—The Ten-Year Curse

As the Hatsu Basho unfolded over the past two weeks, I’ve talked a little bit about the “ten-year curse” and the fact that no Japanese rikishi has won a hon-basho [Grand Sumo Tournament] since January of 2006. Since it’s senshuraku [the final day] and there is a very real chance that the curse will be broken before the day is over, I thought it would be a good idea to give you a little deeper background to what it’s all about.

Back when I started watching sumo in the early 1990s there were a handful of gaijin [foreigners] in Makuuchi, sumo’s uppermost division. Mostly they were Americans from either Hawaii or Samoa, but by and large sumo was still dominated by the Japanese, as it had been for its 500+ year history. But even as I lost track of the scene, there was a lot of talk about the number of Mongolian rikishi who  were starting to work their way up the banzuke [ranking sheet] in the lower divisions.

While sumo is a particularly Japanese sport it was losing favor among the younger generations, who preferred to play baseball, or practice martial arts like kendo and aikido. And as Japan’s economy and standard of living grew, there were fewer and fewer promising athletes who wanted to follow the traditional lifestyle that a rikishi must adhere to. The sumo beyas [stables] were having a tough time recruiting enough young rikishi to keep the sport alive, so they began to look overseas.

Apparently in Mongolia they have a sort of traditional wrestling sport called “bökh” which is close enough to sumo to make it a terrific place to find youngsters with the right basic skills, and the prospects for success are such that there’s are more young wrestlers with dreams of being champions than there are opportunities for success in that sport. The sumo scouts had a rich pool of talent to pick from, and started to recruit heavily.

By the mid-2000s, a growing number of Mongolians were in the Makuuchi Division, including the top four most recognizable sumotori, according to national polls. And there was a dearth of exceptional Japanese rikishi. That is, there were plenty to fill the rank and file positions in the top divisions, but the elite wrestlers all seemed to be Mongolian, including one who would become arguably the greatest sumo wrestler of all time—our current yokozuna Hakuho.

Until 1989, no non-Japanese rikishi had EVER won a hon-basho. In the 1990s, Japanese rikishi won 40 of the 60 tournaments (the other 20 being won by three different American rikishi). Since the year 2000 there have been 95 hon-basho . . . only 14 have been won by Japanese rikishi, and the last of these was in January 2006. Since that time, all but one of the tournaments were won by Mongolian rikishi.

Sumo is still said to be Japan’s national sport, though it’s popularity has lagged. In great part that is because of a match-fixing scandal that rocked the sport in the mid 2000s, but there are those who feel a significant portion of the lingering problem is that all of the current yokozuna are non-Japanese, and it has been a full decade since a pair of Japanese hands have held aloft the Emperor’s Cup (one of the main prizes for winning a hon-basho).

That may change today.

SUMO: Hatsu Basho 2016 (Day 14)

Holy canoli! I can’t remember the last time I saw a hon-basho [Grand Sumo Tournament] that had THIS MANY dramatic twists and turns! It’s Day 14 now, just two days left and there’s no telling what’s going to happen!

I’ll be honest, when I was writing up yesterday’s post, I was trying to play up Toyonoshima’s chances of actually beating Kotoshogiku. I wasn’t kidding when I said that on a given day any upper division rikishi COULD beat any other one . . . I just didn’t really think that it WOULD happen. The ozeki was doing such centered, smart sumo, I figured he was going to roll over the M7 challenger. But the Kotoshogiku who showed up yesterday was just like the one we saw during most of 2015—a little anxious, bull-headed, and overcommitting himself before his opponent was squarely set-up. And, to his credit, Toyonoshima was calm and focused enough to take advantage of that.

So, now we start Day 13 with ozeki Kotoshogiku once again tied with yokozuna Hakuho for the lead, with yokozuna Harumafuji and M7 Toyonoshima one win off the pace. Kotoshogiku still has the easiest remaining schedule—facing sekiwake Tochiozan (6–7) and ozeki Goeido (4–9)—but he no longer has the momentum or sense of destiny he had yesterday. Hakuho, meanwhile, has to fight ozeki Kisenosato (7–6) and then yokozuna Harumafuji (11–2), a much more challenging pair of opponents, but he’s been through the end-of-basho grinder before . . . and has managed to win the yusho [tournament championship] a record 35 times.

Things aren’t simple for the trailing pair, either. Harumafuji must fight yokozuna Kakuryu (9–4) and then yokozuna Hakukho (12–1). And Toyonoshima has bouts against sekiwake Yoshikaze (7–6) and then sekiwake Tochiozan (6–7).

Oh, plus the other fifteen or so matches of rikishi fighting for pride and possible promotion. Here are the matches to watch out for today.

• M1 Aminishiki vs. komusubi Tochinoshin—I’m still keeping an eye on Tochinoshin because he’s still got a possibility of pulling off his kachikoshi [majority of wins]. The last fe days he’s fought other big, strong, power sumo rikishi like himself, but today he’s fighting one of the cleverest, sneakiest rikishi in the game. Aminishiki at 36 years-old was a longshot at the M1 ranking. The tournament he has been overpowered, knocked out of the basho for 3 days by the flu, but he’s still in there and looking better than I’d have guessed. If Tochinoshin can get his hands on his wily opponent, he should be able to keep his kachikoshi hopes alive. But Aminishiki’s got more tricks than a bagful of cats, so I’m a little nervous about this one. (6:10)

• M7 Toyonoshima vs. sekiwake Yoshikaze—Under normal conditions I’d say that Toyonoshima was only “technically” on the leaderboard, but the fact that it’s so late in the basho coupled with his win over Kotoshogiku yesterday means that he’s a legitimate contender in the yusho race. Today he fights Yoshikaze who is still looking for his eighth win to secure his sekiwake ranking for the March tournament. Yoshikaze has looked less than rock solid, particularly in Week 2, but he should still have what it takes win this one. On the other hand, momentum means a lot in sumo, and Toyonoshima certainly has that on his side. (7:00)

• Yokozuna Harumafuji vs. yokozuna Kakuryu—As I said yesterday, when two yokozuna meet anything can happen. That having been said, I’m pretty sure the Harumafuji has the edge in this one. He’s been looking strong this basho, while Kakuryu has looked like a man thinking about retirement. Plus, Harumafuji is still technically in the hunt for the yusho, but he NEEDS this win to keep that true. (8:55)

• Ozeki Kisenosato vs. yokozuna Hakuho—Both of these rikishi NEED this win—Hakuho because he’s tied for the lead, and Kisenosato because he still hasn’t gotten his kachikoshi. That makes this a really difficult outcome to predict. I give the edge to Hakuho because he’s been having a better tournament and he is, after all, HAKUHO. But I give a lot of weight to the power of desperation, too, and Kisenosato has that on his side. He definitely DOESN’T want to go into senshuraku [the final day] with a 50/50 chance of joining ozeki Goeido and injured ozeki Terunofuji in being kadoban [in danger of ozeki demotion] in March. (9:20)

• Ozeki Kotoshogiku vs. sekiwake Tochiozan—Two days ago I’d have said that Kotoshogiku would just roll right over Tochiozan. The ozeki is having the basho of his life, and the sekiwake has struggled and is on the verge of makekoshi [majority of losses]. But Kotoshogiku’s loss to Toyonoshima yesterday showed that he might not be as focused as he needs to be, and Tochiozan has the power of desperation giving him clarity of purpose. I think today’s performance will tell us whether Kotoshogiku REALLY has the internal strength it takes to win the basho (particularly in the face of what’s looking like a pretty likely playoff tomorrow). (7:30)